It was nearly a month ago now.
A month ago since that night when I was told that I was not fit to be a friend, and that said friend would not allow me to be around them or their son. A month ago since I cried until I was retching, texted frantic apologies to everyone I knew for existing, seriously contemplated turning myself into the police, hurt myself until I bruised and bled and finally doubled my emergency anxiety medication so I didn’t end up in the hospital.
A month ago. So short, yet so long ago.
“Are you over it?” a friend asks.
What a stupid question. What a simple question. It happened, it is past, it is over. I should be over it, this I know. I have talked it over with Naia-the-new-therapist, I have talked it over with friends, with my mother. I have deleted all evidence of our nine-year relationship, thrown out the pictures, the invitations, erased their presence from my social media. I have scrubbed myself clean, realized that I did not commit any crimes, only a slightly-more-awful-than-usual social gaffe, and have allowed myself to be have conversations with children again.
But am I over it? No. I am not. And I probably never will be.
I am still trying to tell people what happened. I am still unable to do so without crying. I belong to a religion that does not believe in sin, yet I cannot help going over and over and over my behavior, berating myself, physically beating myself for a crime that I honestly did not know I was committing at the time. Sometimes I think that this is why Catholics have kept up the tradition of confession. Five minutes in a booth, ten minutes on your knees at the altar, and whoosh, your slate is wiped clean, your soul is unsullied, washed over like the cold ocean tide coming in to erase any evidence of footprints.
My autistic brain replays the day and the deed over and over. What could I have done differently? What should I have done? What should I have known? Was it a mistake to reach out in friendship at all? If I had only stayed in my house that day then nothing would have happened. How stupid am I – stupid, stupid, stupid – to believe that I can be around people and not hurt them? I obviously did hurt them. I hurt people. I should be in jail. Isn’t that where people who hurt others go?
“You didn’t hurt them,” Naia says, over and over and over. “You offended them. There is a difference.”
I know, intellectually, that she is right. I threw no knives, I fired no gun, I crashed no car. Yet my behavior and my words hurt them, much as their behavior and their words hurt me. I think that I must deserve this. I think that I must punish myself. Maybe if I punish myself enough, then I will not make the same mistake in the future? Maybe if I give myself one more scar, I will remember to just shut up? Maybe if I just do this, try that, try harder, then my social mistakes will be over and I will stop offending and alienating people.
But I cannot try harder than I am trying now. I cannot try harder than I tried on that day. And I cannot forget, or get over, what happened for a long, long time.
Thirty years ago I interrupted a teacher in preschool and was sent to a time out in the hall. The hall was long, dark and scary. I sat and I cried and I cried. The teacher’s name was Susan. She knew that all preschoolers cried when they got in trouble. She didn’t know that I still haven’t forgiven myself for interrupting her three decades later.
Fourth grade – being late to school. Sixth grade – a flippant remark. Eighth grade – offending someone. Each of these incidents is scarred in my brain. They are wired just as firmly as the titanium rod that holds my friend Penny’s spine together. They will not go away.
Each is a reminder that I cannot trust myself, and I cannot trust other people. Yet it sets off a war inside myself, for I am naturally trusting, naturally friendly. It is only the fact that I’m terrified of hurting others that people ever think I am reserved or shy. The only reason I stutter sometimes isn’t because I can’t find the words, but because I am afraid that the words will be the wrong ones. That these words will lose me, again, friends and relationships that I value.
I love deeply and fiercely. I hug people so hard that they hurt. I try to keep in touch with people, to show them that they are valuable to me. Because of my disability, I require more help than most people. I am always conscious of this, always looking for ways that I can be less of a burden, more of a help. I bake, I drive, I do what I can. But sometimes it feels like I live my life as an apology for existing. I want to live an authentic, autistic, enthusiastic life, yet it has been ground into me from before I could talk that my way of existing is not how other people exist. That most of the time, I am wrong. That most of the time, I should just. Shut. Up.
Which really……isn’t…….me…….at ………all.
I cannot live and be happy and be quiet all the time. I love to talk, love to connect, love to give speeches and presentations and answer questions and help people to understand things. I love to learn, my logical brain seeking an answer to everything. I love to laugh, and pet dogs, and snuggle babies. I love to advocate and hike and do crafts and sing. It’s taken me over three decades but I have finally decided that most of the time, I do love living.
But no life comes without pain. And my life, it seems, is sometimes cursed because it is precisely in doing what I love most – connecting with people – that I occasionally hurt them. I meet strangers and they are speaking Serbian and I am speaking Hindi but neither of us notice and so I stick to my Hindi cultural mores and express things in my Hindi way and I don’t know that I’ve just called them a nasty word in Serbian, because to me the word means something completely different. I was talking about panthers and they were talking about ducks. We were in the same theater but watching completely different plays. Only the characters all look the same to me, so how was I supposed to know? How do I generalize a life’s worth of social skills training, formal and informal, so that I stop making mistakes? I can’t. I can either give up on living completely or accept that sometimes, I will hurt people. At some time, I will probably hurt you.
And sometimes if I’m lucky, sometimes people will give me the chance to explain. Years ago at a beach house, my friend Lizzie was walking around in her bikini all day. I kept imploring her to change into clothes. After a few hours of this, she took me aside. She wanted to know if I was offended by how she looked in her bikini. What? I was aghast. No! I was concerned, because she had been swimming, and my doctor had recently told me that you could get a nasty infection from staying in your wet bathing suit after swimming. I didn’t want her to get sick. I took my doctor’s words as law. I had absolutely no opinion of how she looked, only that she stayed healthy. Oh, Lizzie said. I won’t get sick. You can stop worrying. But it was nice of you to be concerned about me. She could forgive me for my comments. She could give me a chance to explain.
Unfortunately, many times, people will not give me a chance to explain. Another friend at church was on the committee that asked members to be on various committees. I ventured to him that I might volunteer for X. He explained that he would never nominate me for any committee because I had made too many social errors, that people didn’t always like me, that I sometimes said the wrong thing. I accepted this, and thought it over. I thought, this is true. He is right. I don’t want to make any trouble. I don’t want to cause people to have to work more because, after all, understanding and communicating with me does take some work sometimes. Since he said that, years ago, I have never volunteered for a single committee no matter how many times people have asked the general congregation to do so. I have done single tasks alone but that is all. I am still, to this day, too afraid to be a part of my church fully because of this one person’s words.
This fall, I was seriously considering venturing out of my shell more. Now that I’ve qualified for social security (long story some other time) I have more free time. I thought about being on a committee or two. My brain, always slow to process human interaction, thought that perhaps I had something to offer, that perhaps that friend didn’t know me that well, that perhaps I could contribute something of value. And then a message came from someone that I loved, whose son I loved. A message telling me that I am not only unworthy of their respect, but that I am unsafe, evil, all the bad things that ever existed in the world.
Then the tears, and the blood, and the pain that seems to radiate from my fecked-up brain and body.
It has only been a month.
No, I am not over it yet.
It will impact my behavior and thoughts for years to come. It will be the niggling seed of doubt long after this friend has forgotten what exactly I did. I will never forget. I will never stop replaying that scene. Some people’s memories change over time. Mine don’t. In my memories, I am always in the wrong, and I am always deserving of people’s wrath. It’s another neural pathway cementing my PTSD, it’s another thing that I cannot forgive myself for. Definitely not now, maybe not ever.
I’m not okay. I never was, I never will be. So if I don’t seem to relax around you, if I seem tense or unhappy, it is not due to you, it is due to me. Long experience has shown me that I cannot trust people because sooner or later, I will hurt them, I will hurt you, and that is truly the very last thing I ever want to do.
If the road to forgiveness starts with myself, then that is a path I doubt I will ever set eyes, much less walk, upon.